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Recent Reading: Transposition, by C.S. Lewis (from The Weight of Glory)

Dawn Treader

I am still relatively new to C.S. Lewis. I only started reading him about four years ago. For this reason, I often hesitate to post about his writings. Like Chesterton working so hard to craft a worldview only to come to the realization that his newly constructed worldview was only that already held for centuries by the Christian church, I am always afraid of re-inventing the wheel. And, I probably am doing just that once again. Anyhow, it’s new to me. Writing helps to solidify thoughts.

I read Lewis’ address/essay entitled Transposition for the first time recently and found it to be very stimulating. The first element of intrigue, for me, is that anyone who has read Lewis’ fiction will realize that this idea of Transposition was important enough to him that it crept into his stories. It’s there in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as the painting on the wall comes to life. It’s also there in The Silver Chair, as the ‘queen’ of the underworld tries to convince the children and the marsh wiggle that the ‘overworld’ doesn’t really exist. It is also there in The Last Battle, in the unveiling of the new Narnia. Finally, it is there in The Great Divorce, in the form of a ‘world’ that gets more solid as you get closer to heaven. Is it, perhaps, some form of Platonism? My very amateur experience says probably. But I am not philosophically astute enough to know for certain. You tell me.

Lewis’ starting point toward his doctrine of Transposition is, of all things, the phenomenon of ‘speaking in tongues.’ He uses this phenomenon, essentially, to make the point that the ‘higher’ experience of the emotions draws up the ‘lower’ experience of bodily sensation and affect into itself in such a way that the two, though distinguishable (I think), cannot be separated. (I am not going anywhere near any argument relating to ‘tongues,’ and I don’t think that was really Lewis’ focus either – only his starting point, seeing that the talk was originally given during the feast of Pentecost (see pp. 18-19)). In other words, our experience as embodied creatures is such that, while we recognize soulish love as superior to bodily appetite, we cannot completely separate the two. From there, Lewis goes on to make all sorts of interesting illustrations and applications of the point.

His first major application relates to the idea that Christianity uses natural (earthly) images to convey supernatural (heavenly) realities. Why does heaven just look like a fancy version of earth? His answer to that question is this:

If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense (Transposition, from The Weight of Glory (Harper), p. 99).

In other words, if God is to reveal himself to us, and communicate himself to us, in a way that we can understand, then we must allow for some similarities and some difference between the pictures he draws and the reality to which they point.

Which leads to his next illustration of the point: that of drawing (this is the analogy that relates fairly well to The Silver Chair). If a person has only seen sketches of a road on white paper with pencil, he might not be able to differentiate a road from a rectangle. But this is not the reality of what a road is. Lewis says,

Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun (p. 111).

He continues,

If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too ‘illustrious with being.’ They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal (p. 111).

That’s the heaven of The Great Divorce in a sentence.

How then does this more glorious, more solid world relate to ours in the present?:

In a word, I think that real landscapes enter into pictures, not that pictures will one day sprout out into real trees and grass (p. 112).

That’s the painting in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The painting didn’t magically become Narnia; an image of Narnia was in the painting all along, only lacking its true solidity and glory. There was a certain glory to the painting itself, it looked quite ‘Narnian,’ but once the lines were taken away a new glory was revealed. This is reminiscent of the words of Hebrews 8:5 concerning Moses’ writings about the construction of the tabernacle:

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

Now comes the point where Lewis gets really clever. He says that modern man has essentially made himself into an animal by not realizing the reality of Transposition. The materialist (I would say Scientist, but I mean that only in regards to those who hold some form of Scientism) looks at the world and sees only facts – this is the way it is. The result of this is that

He is therefore, as regards the matter at hand, in the position of an animal. You will have noticed that most dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all. his world is all fact and no meaning (p. 114).

As someone who has trained a couple of Labrador Retrievers to follow hand signals, I relate to this one. This then results in things like evolutionary psychology:

A man who has experienced love from within will deliberately go about to inspect it analytically from outside and regard the results of this analysis as truer than his experience (p. 114).

And in the end

The critique of every experience from below, the voluntary ignoring of meaning and concentration on fact, will always have the same plausibility. There will always be evidence, and every month fresh evidence, to show that religion is only psychological, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral biochemistry (pp. 114-115).

Hence he has progressed from speaking in tongues to the Scientistic (not scientific) deconstruction of all that is true, good, and beautiful. And it all boils down to not being able to make proper application of the signs, the pointers, that we have been given. We’ve looked at the painting and only seen it as chemicals on solidified tree pulp when we should have stood in awe and prayed for the hastening of the day when the frame would be removed and the real color would appear.

More to come.

You will not understand a word
Of all the words, including mine;
Never you trouble; you can see,
And all directness is divine—
Stand up and keep your childishness:
Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
That can’t be told in coloured pictures.

-G.K. Chesterton


  1. BC Cook says:

    You remind me here of the last chapter of the last book of Narnia, aptly titled “Farewell to Shadowlands”, in which the maxim of those entering heaven is “further up, and further in!”

    • Heath says:

      Yep, the Last Battle definitely uses the idea of transposition.

      Also, I got the Leisure book by Pieper. I obviously have other things I can read, but if you feel particularly willing to discuss it at some point let me know and I’ll start reading it (like I said, I can do it now or I can wait; it doesn’t matter to me). I think you said you had already read it, so I wouldn’t expect you to read it again; but I’d be glad to hear your comments on it as I work through it. Your thoughts on Living Into Focus were a big help to me as I tried to ‘digest’ it.

      I’m also much more prepared now to discuss issues about Owen’s idea of the Sabbath (and the Puritan view in general after reading The Market Day of the Soul). I plan on posting at some point this week about Owen’s view of the Sabbath in the new covenant.If you like, you are welcome to post (or re-post) any question I haven’t answered and I’ll give it a go in the comments. If you think I will be better informed to thoughtfully answer questions after the Pieper book, then that can wait as well. Just let me know.

      • BC Cook says:

        I’ve not read the Pieper book, but I am eager to do so. I just ordered it and will let you know when it is in. I’m happy to start as soon as it arrives.

        I would say go ahead and get at the Owen questions now. If Peiper’s work is relevant to Owen, then we can bring Owen into the Peiper discussions, and perhaps revisit the Sabbath questions.

        Have you read any of Jacques Ellul? “The Technological Society”, and “Propaganda: The Formations of Men’s Attitudes” both look enticing.

        • Heath says:

          I haven’t read any Ellul. I have seen him quoted and referenced a good bit (I remember, for instance, that Postman mentioned him a bit) in my media ecology reading. I’d be happy to give one his books a go sometime. The Maggie Jackson book (Distracted) has not gone as well as I hoped. You can find some diamonds in it, but you really have to dig; it reads too much like a magazine article.

          I’ll start the Leisure book whenever you want; just let me know. I’m doing some random C.S. Lewis and doctrinal reading right now, so I’m not committed to any big books at the moment.I invested quite a bit of time in the Market Day of the Soul and was fairly disappointed in it; plus Distracted was a disappointment. So it goes with books sometimes.

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